There’s a line from the Who’s “Join Together” that goes, “It’s the singer not the song, that makes the music move along”. The first time I heard this lyric I could not get it out of my head, mainly because I disagreed with it so vehemently. For me and my puritanical view of music at the time, if you really loved music, you understood music was about melody, rhythm, dynamics, and the interaction between instruments.
The vocals were mostly a superfluous element used as a tool to appeal to mass audiences. It’s much easier for a song to get stuck in someone’s head if they have words to sing along to, and that’s what I thought vocals were there for. Basically, a glorified marketing gimmick.
I could not understand then how musicians I respected as much as the Who could get it so wrong. At the time, I chalked it up to Pete Townshend’s narcissism (which, if you have ever seen the man interviewed, is an easy conclusion to draw), but as time went on and my perception of music evolved, and I broadened my spectrum of music genres, I began to realize how wrong I was and how right the Who were.
It’s the singer that gives a song it’s personality, it’s humanity, bridging the gap between the ethereal notes and the intellectual words. It’s the singer who gives us a view into some truth that can not be simply stated. This is why you could give five different people the same song to sing and end up with five very unique songs.
As with music, I view comedy in a similar way. It’s not always so much the joke itself that’s funny, but the comedian who’s delivering it. If we try my little thought experiment with a joke, giving the same joke to five different comedians, I think you’ll agree the amount of laughs the joke gets can vary greatly depending on who is giving it to us.
Now don’t get me wrong, intelligent, witty writing is an extremely important part of comedy, if a joke is bad enough not even some Frankenstein monster made from parts of Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, Bill Murray, Charlie Chaplin, and the whole Monty Python gang would be able to make it funny, but with the right talent involved, you can elevate mediocre material into classic gut-busters.
A prime example of this is 30 Minutes or Less. The film tells two parallel buddy stories: that of the “good guys”, Nick (Jessie Eisenberg), who earns a meager living as a pizza delivery boy, and his grade school teacher friend, Chet (Aziz Ansari), and that of the “bad guys”, the would-be criminal masterminds Dwayne (Danny McBride) and Travis (Nick Swardson). Dwayne is the stay-at-home-son of an R. Lee Ermey-esque military veteran simply referred to as “The Major” (Fred Ward).
Dwayne has a large inheritance coming his way upon the Major’s death (a man who made his wealth by winning the lottery), and when a stripper puts the idea of patricide into his head, the only thing keeping Dwayne from his inheritance (and his dreams of opening up a tanning salon/bordello) is the money he needs to hire a hitman to carry out the dastardly deed. Dwayne and Travis come to the conclusion that the best way to raise the cash would be to rob a bank, but not wanting to get their own hands dirty, they kidnap Nick as he delivers a pizza, strapping a bomb to his chest and giving him ten hours to rob a bank and give them the money. Nick recruits Travis to help him carry out the robbery and , as always, hilarious hijinks ensue.
It’s a clever premise (with a controversial similarity to a real-life 2003 incident in Erie, Pennsylvania that was anything but funny) and I enjoyed the “two-sides of a coin” narrative structure, but most of the jokes are standard R-comedy affair. A lot of raunchy sexual references, guys ragging on each other, and most every other genre staple you can think is accounted for here. It’s competently done and good for a few laughs, but with the exception of one or two standout set pieces (such as the bank robbery scene, which is probably the most amateur heist ever put on the silver screen), nothing breaks new ground here.
The direction from Ruben Fleischer is sleek and crisp, never veering too far off from the story at hand. Fleischer, who made something of a name for himself with his impressive feature-film debut Zombieland (another film starring Jessie Eisenberg), has thus far proved to be a confident director of comedy, allowing the audience to find humor through the narrative without having to resort to the metaphorical cow bell to let the audience know it’s time to laugh. 30 Minutes or Less doesn’t quite have as much personalty as Zombieland, but between the two films, Fleischer is a name I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for in the future.
As I was alluding to with the Who reference though, the thing that really makes the film work is the actors, in particular Danny McBride. Now in interest of full disclosure, I must admit I am a huge Danny McBride fan, so if for some inexplicable reason you find McBride’s antics annoying or something less than hysterical, you may want to ignore this review completely. McBride has improved with every movie he’s been in (even in small roles in films I didn’t care for such as Observe and Report), and his show, Eastbound and Down, is one of the best shows currently on television.
What I love about McBride is his ability to play outlandish, over-the-top characters with a level of sincerity and humanity that prevents them from becoming the cartoonish caricatures that so many actors would tend to make them (I won’t name any names, but it rhymes with Phil Carroll). No matter how ridiculous the line, McBride never delivers it like a bad knock-knock joke, but rather as an earnest (if not totally realistic) human being, and even though he plays the villain in 30 Minutes or Less, I have to confess to feeling at least a little bit of sympathy for his character all the way through.
It’s not just McBride that deserves kudos though, as the rest of the cast contributes significantly to the laughs. Jessie Eisenberg, the quintessential every-man of this generation, continues to refine his reputation as one the best young actors today. While some of Eisenberg’s detractors may accuse him of resting on his 21st Century anti-Cary Grant schtick, his understated sardonic delivery perfectly captures the blase of the times and his age bracket (exactly the approach called for when inhabiting the role of a pizza delivery boy). Nick Swardson, playing the dopey villainous sidekick, gives a surprisingly deft performance as well.
Going into the movie, I was worried Swardson might be overzealous in emphasizing the low IQ aspects of his character, but he adds an unexpected amount of depth to the role, matching McBride step for step in terms of subtle nuance (for an R-rated buddy comedy). Michael Pena, in a smaller role as a Mexican gangster, also proves to be a great asset for the film, delivering some of the film’s best lines (including a hilarious throwaway line about his mom calling him a pimp).
As much as I hate to admit it, the one weak link in the ensemble is Aziz Ansari. Outside of Chris Pratt, Ansari’s Tom Haverford is the best part of the superb NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, and Ansari’s stand-up routines are always enjoyable, so the man definitely has talent, but in 30 Minutes or Less, Ansari gets lost in the shuffle. This is partly to do with the nature of his character, the most straight and narrow of the four leads, but Ansari fails to inject much personality in the role, which stands out even more in comparison to the excellent performances surrounding him.
30 Minutes or Less, with a running time of 83 minutes (disappointing the super-literal), is a brisk entertaining comedy with a good set-up, occasionally above-par writing, and a great cast that bails it out the rest of the time. It may not be the most innovative comedy around, but if you’re a fan of any one of the actors involved, you won’t want to miss it.